Written by CocoaMamas contributor Rachel B.
“I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did.”
There is not a black mother on Earth who has not said those words to her daughter. They are said in anger, resignation, frustration and guilt. We, like any and all mothers, want the very best for our daughters. We want them to explore every possibility and to experience things that were beyond our reach. We also want them to avoid the pitfalls, the traps and the trick doors that we befell us. Instead of imparting to our daughters wisdom, we often give to them our shame and regrets. We tell them if only we had listened to so-and-so, not gone to that place, stayed there, or hung out with those people, our lives would be radically different. We are so quick and so sure that the blame lies entirely with us despite many of us being aware of our unique position at the intersections of gender, race and class. If we had turned left instead of right or had looked up instead of down, life as we know would not be so hard.
We say these words to our daughters knowing that both black and white spaces endanger a black girls’ journey to self-fulfillment. We know we are judged by a different set of rules. Our actions, whether positive or negative, acquire a supernatural ability to exalt or demote the entire black race. We are also keenly aware of the pervasive double standard that still in full effect in our own communities regarding the actions of black men/boys and black women/girls. Black respectability politics have placed black women as the gate keepers of our culture although many of us resent it. While teaching our daughters how to navigate a world that has a morbid fascination with our degradation, we seem to follow one of two paths; hanging our heads in shame or distancing ourselves from our pasts.
“I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did.”
What are those mistakes? More often than not, they are sexual in nature. We feel that we gave it up too soon, too easily, to the wrong person at the wrong time. We tell our daughters’ we were hard headed, naïve, foolish, stupid and spiteful. We found ourselves in a position where our private vulnerabilities became public shame. We are so quick to assume and claim responsibility; we ignore the other very real circumstances that lead to make those choices in the first place. It is painful to even remember that we had to have sex for survival, that those were in positions of power and authority took advantage of our lesser position. If we had just listened, we never would have been in that car, in that room, at that party, with that boy, with those men. If we had just listened, everything would have been ok.
If we are not using our shame to deter our daughters, then we are holding up as an admonition to our daughters those who seem to shamelessly embody the loose morals and decay of our culture. The baby mamas, poor women, junkies, and the sex workers are plentiful and disposable warnings to keep our girls on the straight and narrow. We point to them to illustrate what will happen if they don’t heed our warnings. We may have pity, arrogance, condensation, disgust in our voice but the end result is that for our daughters these women and girls cease to be complex and complicated people and become caricatures. Their “mess” highlights our accomplishments, refinements, education and position.
It is tempting to believe that if you just follow the rules, somehow you will be protected or at the very least buffered from the sexualized racism that is so omnipresent now. We see the billboards stating that we are a danger to our children, read the “studies” that declare with authority that we are not desirable, hear at any given time “hoe” and “bitch” out of thumping cars, while walking down the street, or as a “joke”. We feel the pain, hurt, confusion, and helplessness though we do our best to be as dignified as possible. We have to be dignified because we know that we are always being watched. We look into our daughters’ eyes and see sweetness, innocence, intelligence and curiosity. We watch them as they run and laugh impervious at the moment to the harsh realities of the world. We as mothers want nothing more than to let our daughters have those moments but we also know the world will not allow such frivolity. We don’t mean come off as harsh. We don’t mean to be so judgmental or to suck our teeth at the girls who we determine to be “ghetto”. We really don’t mean to hiss that “she” is a “fast ass” and predict she’ll end up in “trouble”. When communications between ourselves and our daughters is at its worst, we yell out in frustration “You want to end up like her?!”
The reality is that no matter what we do or don’t do, black women and girls will continue to be under attack. Although Mrs. Obama is accomplished in her own right, she continues to be exposed to some of the most vicious racist and sexist attacks. A maid who was recently sexually assaulted in New York by one of the most powerful men in the world, bravely reported the attack, and underwent an invasive exam afterward has had her honesty questioned, her identity and that of her daughter exposed in French media and her role as the victim questioned. Even where she resides has been tarnished as an AIDS building. Even in death, black women and girls have to prove our worth to have justice served.
Our daughters will be the next generation that will be under attack. They will be the ones who march, speak, protest, write, dance, paint, sing, and pray in creative protest. They will have at their disposal their own talents that will enable future generations of black women to reclaim their narrative. What will not help is shame or separation from their sisters. When we insist that the fault was all ours, they internalize our shame. When we use those who are the most vulnerable to as a deterrent, we make those girls the other. What our daughters need is for us to be tender with ourselves. When we look at our past with soft eyes, we do the same to others. Our daughters will see that and not accept debts that they did not incur. When our daughters are witnesses to our healing, they in turn will learn to do the same for themselves and others.